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Trump downplays Whitaker ties amid criticism

President Donald Trump sought to distance himself from the Justice Department official he just named as acti...

Posted: Nov 10, 2018 4:14 AM
Updated: Nov 10, 2018 4:14 AM

President Donald Trump sought to distance himself from the Justice Department official he just named as acting attorney general in the face of mounting criticism about the legality and propriety of his appointment.

"I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump said of the new acting attorney general, saying he hired him because he had worked for since-dismissed Attorney General Jeff Sessions. "He was always extremely highly thought of, and he still is. But I didn't know Matt Whitaker. He worked for Attorney General Sessions."

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The President's comments are at odds with the relationship Trump has forged with Whitaker in recent months, even as his opinion of Sessions continued to sour. Whitaker has been at the White House dozens of times, including in meetings with Trump, and the two have spoken by phone on several occasions, including on the day that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was expected to be fired.

And in an October 11 interview on Fox News, Trump made clear he did, in fact, know Whitaker well.

"I can tell you Matt Whitaker's a great guy. I know Matt Whitaker," he said.

Whitaker was not hired as Sessions' chief of staff by virtue of any pre-existing relationship with Sessions, but instead because White House officials believed Whitaker's loyalties would lie at the White House and not with the beleaguered attorney general, sources said.

And over the last year, Whitaker has told friends about his growing relationship with Trump. The President knew that he had played football and the tall, brawny former US attorney fit the image Trump liked, according to people familiar with their conversations, far more than the diminutive Sessions, whom Trump mocked.

"He looks like the kind of guy who sits at the head of a table," a source familiar with the matter said of Whitaker.

Questions arise

Even as he claimed on Friday not to know Whitaker, it was clear Trump maintained an affinity for him, praising his qualifications for the job as he insisted Whitaker was being unfairly maligned.

Some legal scholars -- including George Conway, the husband of Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway -- said they thought Whitaker's appointment is unconstitutional because he is not a Senate-confirmed official. Other critics have slammed Trump's decision to appoint Whitaker as acting attorney general over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein because the move puts Whitaker in charge of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, which Whitaker had been publicly critical of.

Trump insisted Friday that he had not spoken with Whitaker about the Mueller investigation.

"I didn't speak to Matt Whitaker about it. I don't know Matt Whitaker," Trump said.

The President's move to distance himself from Whitaker is a familiar refrain Trump has used when associates of his have become embroiled in controversy.

When federal prosecutors targeted his longtime former attorney Michael Cohen, Trump insisted Cohen handled only a "tiny, tiny fraction" of his legal work. Before that, he claimed that his indicted former campaign chairman Paul Manafort worked for him for "a very short period of time." And shortly before ousting his chief White House strategist Steve Bannon, who also helmed his campaign, Trump maintained Bannon "came on very late."

Still, the President praised Whitaker as "very highly thought of" and said that Whitaker is only taking heat because "anybody that works for me, they do a number on him."

"Matt Whitaker is a very smart man, he is a very respected man in the law enforcement community, top of the line," Trump said. "He's acting, I think he'll do a very good job and we'll see what happens."

In an email to Department of Justice staff on Friday, Whitaker vowed to lead "a fair Department with the highest ethical standards, that upholds the rule of law, and seeks justice for all Americans."

Sense of concern

Trump's comments came as a growing sense of concern developed inside the White House over the negative reaction to Whitaker being tapped as the acting chief law enforcement official. Several senior officials said they were surprised by the criticism and believe it could potentially jeopardize his chances to remain in the post if it continues to dominate headlines.

It was not widely known among the staff that he had commented repeatedly on the special counsel's investigation in interviews and on television -- an irony given that Whitaker's TV appearances helped him land his job at the Justice Department and people close to Trump encouraged Whitaker to keep up his TV appearances to draw Trump's attention.

Whitaker was tapped by the White House to serve as Sessions' chief of staff in September 2017, with sources describing then-White House counsel Don McGahn as the person behind the hiring.

McGahn was drawn to Whitaker because he had a stalwart reputation in right-wing legal circles and because the White House wanted someone who was competent, could mind Sessions and could "keep things on the rails" at the Justice Department.

Leonard Leo, the executive vice president of the Federalist Society, said he recommended Whitaker for that post.

"I recommended him and was very supportive of him for chief of staff for very specific reasons," Leo told CNN. "Jeff Sessions needed a reliable conservative, a strong manager, and someone who had credibility who had previously served the department. Whitaker was a very good former US attorney and is a very good manager. He's a no-nonsense, get-it-done kind of guy."

Whitaker and White House chief of staff John Kelly developed a close relationship too. Kelly would often call Whitaker to convey when Trump was unhappy with something at the Justice Department or with Sessions in particular, and another source said Kelly and Whitaker were "cut from the same cloth."

Whitaker also worked to forge a relationship with the President's daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner during trips to the White House, understanding they were key to moving up in Trump's eyes.

George Terwilliger III, a former deputy attorney general who is a Sessions ally and familiar with his senior staff, described Whitaker as a "good lawyer" with "good political skills and instincts" and said he had grown close to the White House.

Terwilliger said Whitaker's position had put him in contact with the White House "where he's held in pretty high regard."

Mississippi Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 497790

Reported Deaths: 9917
CountyCasesDeaths
Harrison34102530
DeSoto31839398
Hinds31837622
Jackson24314377
Rankin21881388
Lee15427234
Madison14525279
Jones13772241
Forrest13412250
Lauderdale11937314
Lowndes10934185
Lamar10470135
Pearl River9431237
Lafayette8454138
Hancock7697126
Washington7365156
Oktibbeha7111129
Monroe6727174
Warren6642176
Pontotoc6609101
Neshoba6606205
Panola6460131
Marshall6386132
Bolivar6266145
Union596094
Pike5784152
Alcorn5633101
Lincoln5417134
George491879
Scott470998
Tippah465381
Prentiss464181
Leflore4627143
Itawamba4596104
Adams4570119
Tate4546109
Copiah445191
Simpson4421116
Wayne438572
Yazoo438586
Covington427394
Marion4216107
Sunflower4215104
Coahoma4115104
Leake407787
Newton380879
Grenada3692108
Stone358464
Tishomingo356391
Attala330289
Jasper328265
Winston313191
Clay306375
Chickasaw296767
Clarke290694
Calhoun277945
Holmes266987
Smith262550
Yalobusha232647
Tallahatchie225251
Walthall217763
Greene215548
Lawrence211140
Perry204755
Amite203954
Webster201645
Noxubee185340
Montgomery179056
Jefferson Davis170642
Carroll167438
Tunica158639
Benton147438
Kemper141241
Choctaw133026
Claiborne131237
Humphreys129038
Franklin119128
Quitman106227
Wilkinson104539
Jefferson94234
Sharkey64020
Issaquena1937
Unassigned00

Alabama Coronavirus Cases

Cases: 813481

Reported Deaths: 15179
CountyCasesDeaths
Jefferson1139971910
Mobile722271323
Madison51970686
Shelby37279341
Baldwin37069540
Tuscaloosa34934599
Montgomery33953725
Lee23142240
Calhoun22142470
Morgan20639372
Etowah19758496
Marshall18245300
Houston17302405
St. Clair15912337
Cullman15306290
Limestone15202198
Elmore15075284
Lauderdale14143294
Talladega13715272
DeKalb12569259
Walker11085366
Blount10094174
Autauga9893146
Jackson9789180
Coffee9182189
Dale8859181
Colbert8789200
Tallapoosa7044195
Escambia6732127
Covington6682179
Chilton6587160
Russell625958
Franklin5930105
Chambers5559142
Marion4955126
Dallas4882199
Clarke472782
Pike4719105
Geneva4564126
Winston4473101
Lawrence4264117
Bibb421686
Barbour355475
Marengo334089
Monroe330262
Randolph327063
Butler324794
Pickens313882
Henry310965
Hale309187
Cherokee299957
Fayette290679
Washington250951
Cleburne246958
Crenshaw243575
Clay240367
Macon230562
Lamar215846
Conecuh185652
Coosa178538
Lowndes173761
Wilcox167438
Bullock151744
Perry138040
Sumter131038
Greene125544
Choctaw86927
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Columbus
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A cold front passing through our area overnight will bring into our area some of the coolest temperatures of the season so far. We will see most of the highs this weekend only in the upper 60s to lower 70s. While overnight lows will drop off down into the 40s Saturday night.
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